Separation anxiety is a common occurrence in young children just beginning school, especially those that have never attended daycare or been regularly left in the care of a childcare provider outside of the family. Though it can be painful for both parents and children to leave each other at first, separation anxiety is usually overcome as a child becomes more accustomed to her new routine. When separation anxiety persists well beyond preschool or kindergarten and into the early elementary school years, however, it may indicate a more serious problem than run of the mill separation anxiety. There are several common causes for difficulty separating in elementary aged children that parents of struggling children may want to take into consideration.
- School Phobia – Children that become visibly anxious or exhibit a fear of going to school may be suffering from a more severe anxiety disorder known as school phobia, which can manifest as persistent separation anxiety. If your child has frequent stomachaches, nausea, diarrhea, or headaches that aren’t connected to an actual illness when school is mentioned, he may be suffering from school phobia. This condition is also called school avoidance or school refusal, terms that seem to imply a simple distaste for school. For some children, this anxiety can dissipate on its own as a routine is established and fears prove to be unfounded. The issue can also be an early indication of anxiety disorders and may negatively impact your child’s academic performance. Should his ability to keep up with his class result from frequent school avoidance, it may become even more stressful to attend class as fears that his delays will be discovered by his classmates begin to exacerbate his anxiety. Consulting your child’s pediatrician to determine if his separation anxiety is rooted in school phobia and discussing the matter with your child can help you determine the best course of action.
- Personal Trauma – Divorce, the death of a loved one, or other traumatic changes in your child’s life can make the idea of being separated from remaining caregivers a repellent one, even for short periods of time. If your child’s separation anxiety began to present itself after a traumatic event, that event could be the underlying cause of his reluctance to be separated from you. Working with your child’s doctor or a specializing therapist to manage these feelings and help him overcome the trauma is usually the best way to resolve any lingering separation anxiety.
- Abuse or Bullying – A child that shows marked anxiety about attending school but refuses to explain why he’s reluctant to be separated from a loved and trusted caregiver may be the victim of bullying, either from classmates or older students in his school. Look for signs of bullying, and approach the subject with your child carefully to determine if this is the cause of his anxiety. Similarly, a child who shows little compunction about attending school but is visibly upset at the prospect of being left in after-school care may be suffering from abuse at the hands of a caregiver. Before leveling accusations of abuse at your child’s caregiver, however, you should remember that such allegations can be personally and professionally devastating, even if proven false in the end. You should be absolutely certain that your child is being abused before filing charges or accusing his childcare provider of harming him, but it is a possibility you should consider if his behavior is erratic and his separation anxiety seems to manifest only at certain times.
- Academic Struggles – When a child is struggling to keep up with his class or feels overwhelmed by the academic demands placed on him at school, even at an early age, fear of discovery and humiliation can present itself as severe separation anxiety. If your child hysterically protests being separated from a loving parent and an environment that feels safe and you’re aware of any difficulty with schoolwork, it’s wise to consider the possibility that his anxiety is a result of his struggle to keep up. Many learning disorders can be managed, but the ability to manage them depends upon a diagnosis. To determine whether or not your child’s separation anxiety is a symptom of a learning disorder that affects his academic performance, you should consult with his teacher, a counselor and your pediatrician.
- Separation Anxiety Disorder – While traditional separation anxiety is considered a normal developmental milestone for babies and toddlers, separation anxiety disorder is an actual illness that presents itself in older children. Distress upon separation, persistent worry that future events will lead to a permanent separation from a loved one, and irrational concerns that a parent or loved one will die or meet a terrible fate while they’re out of a child’s sight are all indicators that the child is suffering from separation anxiety disorder. If your child exhibits signs of anxiety upon being separated under any circumstances, such as sleeping in their own bedroom or visiting a friend’s house, it’s important that you discuss the matter with his doctor to ensure that he gets the right treatment to manage his symptoms.
Determining whether your child is suffering from run-of-the-mill separation anxiety at a relatively late age or whether his stress is the result of an underlying problem can be challenging without the help of a medical professional.